K-Pop Boy Band Enhypen Survive and Thrive in Arena Upgrade

Birthed from a competition show and debuting in the pandemic, K-pop boy band Enhypen may have finally found their artistic voice on their new arena tour.

The boys of Enhypen have done it all: trained as dancers and singers for years at agencies, pushed through the emotional brutality of the idol elimination show I-LAND, and have been through a near-constant gamut of recording and touring while figuring out their sonic identity and their place in the ever-expanding K-pop market. So it’s no wonder the last time I saw Enhypen live, sweating as they cooled down during the segments where they addressed their American fans, they sounded a bit awkward.

Despite making some international waves with their bold dance-rock hybrids (and scoring some outright chart-toppers in Japan), this group formed in 2020, making their artistic identity one that was born in and lived through the pandemic era. They’ve alternated from choreography-heavy mature pop to children’s TV themes, capable of pulling off almost any concept but sometimes doing so at the risk of not creating a clear sonic throughline in their discography. Their missteps have made them relatable, their sometimes-unsure energy bordering on charming. Most idol groups stick with the concept they debut with, but in this era of hyperpromotion, debuting without a hit means you won’t ever get to your next concept.

Thus, at Chicago’s unusually-shaped Wintrust Arena in October of 2022, Enhypen did what so many idol groups do: spend time between their performance set-pieces talking to the audience to thank them for their support and wishing that next time around they could all be together but at a bigger venue. Bilingual members Jay and Jake can freestyle the most with their English-speaking crowds, but as with any on-the-rise group, they speak in general honorifics and try to fit in words between the waves of fan screams each time they appear on the stage screens. These talking segments are explicitly designed to give the boys a break between intense dance numbers, but sometimes all the idol training in the world can’t prepare them for how to take control in these moments, leading to 20-minute momentum-killing stand-and-speak moments that leave a lot to be desired.

One week shy of a full year later, Heeseung, Jay, Jake, Sunghoon, Sunoo, Jungwon, and NI-KI were playing at the Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, California, just south of Los Angeles. It was their first US arena show, and while the speaking segments still ran a bit long, it’s amazing what a K-pop group in their commercial and artistic prime can achieve in a single year.

By upgrading to an arena, almost every aspect of their production was improved: their sets were bigger, the giant video monitors almost mask-shaped, and unlike their last time around, they could afford a squad of backup dancers that were, quite frankly, underused throughout their two-and-half-hour performance. The focus was on the Enhypen boys, and it feels like they genuinely matured quite a bit between comebacks, giving off a more sensual edge even while still in their early 20s.

In their 2022 Chicago show for their “Manifesto” tour, they opened with their debut hit “Given-Taken”. At the LA date of their “Fate” trek, they cut that song completely, instead opening with arguably their signature hit “Drunk-Dazed” and moving into album tracks like “Blockbuster” and “Flicker”. To be a modern boy group in K-pop practically requires you to be a good dancer, and for the “Fate” tour, it felt like they had grown even tighter as a unit, pulling off complex and demanding choreography with ease. Enhypen have become so clean and efficient at their routines that one almost pines for a bit more edge and rawness, but when doing all these performances and also giving live vocals, fan expectations are already quite high.

The best part about becoming a group large enough to sell out stadiums was that it afforded the members more opportunities to show off their artistry. A ballad section in the middle of the setlist proved a welcome change of pace, as Jay played live acoustic guitar on the track “TFW (That Feeling When)”, only to be immediately followed by the piano ballad “Just a Little Bit” with Heeseung tickling the ivories. Korea loves a good ballad, and while Enhypen have yet to deliver a truly great one, mixing up their flow so it’s not all dance-speak-break-repeat gives them more opportunities for the members to charm and show off their individual personalities. Sometimes, reaching a certain stratosphere of fame affords you even more opportunities to become larger.

By the time the setlist careened into the fan-favorite selections (“10 Months”, the goofy “Polaroid Love”, the house-styled dance hit, “Go Big or Go Home”), Enhypen’s energy started to flag. While they got recharged by running out into the crowd during “Polaroid Love”, performing for two hours can take it out of you. Yet after a video interlude and a costume change, their final stretch, featuring material from their recent vampire-themed release, Dark Blood, had them firing on all cylinders. Vampire concept aside, the maturity of their latest tracks resonated with Enhypen, as their attack on tracks like “Chaconne”, “Sacrifice (Eat Me Up)”, and especially current mega-hit “Bite Me” came from a place of deep enthusiasm. It truly is a sight to see a group fully recover their momentum out of sheer love of material, and it hints at what is yet to come for Enhypen, who allegedly have another round of material ready to go as soon as this tour wraps up.

While their delayed encore was greeted with another round of full-stadium screams from their fans, it’s clear that superstardom is a good fit for Enhypen. Finally free of the hyphenated title tracks of their early years, it truly feels like they are getting tighter as a unit and more comfortable taking risks with their sound. In the great K-pop boy band vacuum in the wake of BTS‘ hiatus, there’s been no clear heir to the throne, even as cutesy concept group TXT and aggressive “boy crush” champions Stray Kids make huge strides in the West. Enhypen are still a bit far away from being true contenders for that crown, but after the opening night of this latest world tour, you couldn’t tell them otherwise.